Steve Waldman and Deal Hudson are having a debate about why Clinton is winning the Catholic vote and Obama is not–an interesting development given that the two candidates share most social justice views that might appeal to Catholics, as well as being pro-choice and pro-gay rights and such.
Steve argues that “in the Democratic primaries, the Catholic vote has nothing to do with Catholicism,” while Deal argues that Clinton has already branded herself positively in the eyes of Catholic voters, while Obama has not been able to translate “his social justice package into a family issue, as the Clintons have done so successfully”–and may never do so.
I’d have to side with Steve on this one, yet I’d take it a step further: Catholicism doesn’t “matter” to Catholic voters in the general election either. This is not to say that Catholicism doesn’t matter to Catholics. It’s just that it has little connection to politics, a “great divorce” that has been happening for decades, almost since the apex of Catholic solidarity in the 1960 Kennedy campaign. According to surveys (the Pew surveys being the best source), Catholics consistently say that their faith informs their political choices and views to a lesser degree than it does with any other believers. Depending on how the question is posed, the number of Catholics who say religion is important to their political decisions ranges from 12 percent to 26 percent–the latter figure from a 2004 Pew survey. The next lowest figure was for Mainline Protestants, at 32 percent, and then Jews, at 33 percent. Evangelicals and Black Protestants (hence the import of the Obama-Wright story) clocked in at nearly 6 in 10 saying religion informed their political thinking.
Why is this so for Catholics? It’s not necessarily because Catholics have been trending Republican, although they have become the archetypal ‘swing” vote in recent cycles, one that, like the Holy Spirit, will blow where it will, with unpredictable results. The real reason, I think, is that Catholic voters are political orphans because neither party represents Catholic teachings or Catholic culture or Catholic interests to any consistent degree. Despite the claims of some that the bishops promote a single-issue agenda (that’d be abortion, for those who have been asleep at the switch), the hierarchy’s guide on informing Catholic voters (titled “Faithful Citizenship”) is in fact–if you are a partisan looking for support–the worst voter guide ever written. (Or the safest, in terms of IRS statutes.) The Christian Coalition would have it mulched.
Even the bishops note that the guide’s explanation of Catholic political concerns makes it extremely difficult for a voter to know how to choose. Yes, Catholic voters have much more permissive views than the hierarchy of civil unions for gays and abortion rights and the like. But while abortion is a predominant concern for the bishops, the political reality is that most Catholics feel that even the GOP’s “culture of life” sloganeering (a rip-off from John Paul who, were he alive, should consider a plagiarism lawsuit) is empty rhetoric.
So Catholic voters just don’t have a political affiliation that matches up well with their church’s teachings (though partisans on both sides will dispute that) and in the end they go to the dance with the candidate who makes them the sweetest-sounding promises.